For Gandhi that spirituality is no spirituality which does not
bring an end to injustice, exploitation and social divisions.
– Satish Kumar
I left Bija Vidyapeeth on Saturday, December 5th, but mentally and emotionally still am processing my experiences there. It was difficult transitioning from life on the campus and Navdanya’s conservation farm to the Delhi hotel room where I spent two nights surrounded by things I had not seen or thought about in 12 days – a small refrigerator, a television, a closet. In addition, I was very conscious of the costs, not only financial but human, of the water that was coming from the faucet in my bathroom.
There was also the sensation that the participants with whom I just had completed the 10-day course on “Gandhi and Globalisation” at Bija Vidyapeeth were “my people.” I will miss their individual and collective spirit, and their commitment to Gandhi’s charge to “be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Last year, on my first trip to India, I was deeply moved during my visits to the site of Gandhi’s assassination and the museum dedicated to his life in Delhi. Gandhi’s conviction that “my life is my message,” the simplicity of the room where he spent his final days, and the image of him sitting at the spinning wheel that became the symbol of his freedom movement all hold a power for me that I have yet to fully discern. That is one reason why I decided to attend the course on “Gandhi and Globalisation” at Bija Vidyapeeth on my return trip to India this year.
During the course, we learned from Satish Kumar that a Gandhian way of life has four pillars, each identified with a word drawn from the ancient Sanskrit language of India. The first pillar is Sarvodaya, a word Gandhi coined by combining two concepts to create the notion of “all rise together” (Sarva = “all” and Udaya = “rising”). In other words, for Gandhi, the interconnection of all beings on Earth means that the welfare of one is tied to the welfare of all. Development work, then, should begin with the least of all, and extend not only to humans, but to all of creation.
As we sat beside the fields that were the source of the food we ate at our meals, Kumar reminded us that even the lowly earthworms work “24/7” for our benefit. “No earthworms, no food,” said Kumar. It was the beginning of a profound re-thinking our relationship to soil, to trees, and to the whole of the natural world that began to sink into my consciousness during my days at Bija.
During the course, a shocking moment for me came when Kumar told us that during the recent Iceland volcanic eruption that disrupted air traffic over Europe, authorities were in a panic because they knew that Europe only had 4 days of food stocked in the local stores. “After that, we would starve,” said Kumar. Later, one of the course participants from England told me that a common joke there is: “We are three meals away from food anarchy.”
All I recall hearing on our own news channels in the U.S. during the days of the Iceland volcano crisis was about disrupted vacations and business travel. I recall nothing being said about the fact that our entire urban food distribution system has become dependent on air and truck travel. In addition, not only do the many of us living urban lifestyles no longer grow our own food, apparently some urban planners have decided that no one wants to cook it either. Kumar also told us that contractors in England are building apartments totally without kitchens. Apparently, the growing commercial expectation is that all food will be processed, pre-packaged, and microwaveable.
Vandana Shiva’s alternative vision is that each urban area be surrounded by its own ring of organic food providers. But, also on the course, we learned that such alternative visions come to reality, as with Gandhi’s vision of India’s freedom, only through struggle.
On our fourth day, one of our speakers was a woman named Aruna Roy, one of the founders of a movement in the 1990’s here in India to get a “Right To Information” act adopted. Passage of the act has had a tremendous impact on the ability of villagers to fight corruption by local officials. Not surprisingly, many of those officials were extremely resistant to passage of the act.
Aruna opened her talk by saying, “I’m here to talk about struggle.” She told a powerful story of activism that included two “fast unto death” actions, and several long sit-ins that helped to draw attention and popular support to the act.
In our final days on the course, we had two incredible sessions with an elderly married couple, Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna, who are famous freedom and environmental activists. On Friday morning, Sunderlal, who is now 84, told us the story of how he left his village in the Himalayas at age 13 to join Gandhi’s freedom movement. The area where he lived was then under the rule of a local king, who was independent of but supported by the British, and who was extremely oppressive.
Sunderlal’s contribution to the freedom movement was as a journalist. He wrote accounts of what was going on in the Himalayan villages, and had the reports smuggled out to the wider Indian press, counting mounting political pressure. At 17, Sunderlal was imprisoned by the British for five months. He was able to escape while being treated for a medical condition. He continued his involvement in the freedom movement, even going “underground” for a period of time. After Indian independence in 1947, the people of his area were able to conduct a successful nonviolent protest to overthrow the king.
Upon the success of their nonviolent movement, Sunderlal traveled to Delhi to report the news to Gandhi. He did meet with Gandhi in Delhi, on the day before Gandhi’s assassination. Sunderlal said Gandhi told him, “As high as are the Himalayas, that deeply you have brought my nonviolent principles down to the ground.”
Vimla later that afternoon told us her own story of being involved first in protests against liquor usage in the villages (workers were paid in liquor, and local bootleggers sold it). Later, she was involved in the Chipko movement. This was the women’s nonviolent, tree-hugging protest in the Himalayas begun in the 1980’s. It lasted for eight years before they successfully put a stop to the logging of their indigenous trees. A public official once visited the women attempting to pressure them into stopping their protest. He said, “You foolish village women, do you know what do the forests bear? Resin, timber and foreign exchange!” Immediately, one of the women responded:
“Yes, we know.
What do the forests bear?
Soil, water, and pure air.
Soil, water and pure air are the basis of life.” (Sunderlal, 2009, p. 18)
Vimla also told us the story of the unsuccessful protest against the Tehri dam in the Ganga River. She and Sunderlal, along with a hundred thousand other residents, lost their home when their valley and town were flooded to create a reservoir to provide drinking water for Delhi burgeoning population. Vimla was one of the last persons to leave the town, and had to be forcibly removed from their 100-year-old home as the flood waters surrounded it.
The really sad and frustrating thing about the Tehri dam story is that even from the beginning, engineers predicted that the dam would only last for 100 years before silt in the river would render it ineffective. Even those predications, however, are proving inaccurate, and now they are saying the dam may only last 30 years. Besides that, Sunderlal said, the water in the river is now only 50 percent of what it was in 1948, due to the melting of the glaciers caused by global warming.
Sunderlal had advocated a more permanent solution to the water issue, calling for reforestation efforts that would “turn the entire Himalayas into a natural dam.” But, there would have been no financial profit in that model. Instead the water project was turned over to a private company, and all public plans abandoned.
One of the most profound lessons I got from Sunderlal and Vimla is a new understanding of trees as a true source of life for us humans on Earth. Sunderlal and Vimla spoke beautifully of trees and their gifts to us. The trees first gift is oxygen; the second is that they remove our poisonous carbon dioxide from the air; the third is that trees are, in Sunderlal’s words, “the mothers of our rivers,” since they attract the rain clouds, and then catch the rain on their leaves, letting it fall down in small drops upon the ground, where it can slowly seep into the soil and collect again to become small streams that lead to the rivers. Without the trees, the rainwater simply runs off, in the process taking causing erosion and taking valuable topsoil with it.
Through their dying leaves and ultimately their own deaths, the fourth gift of trees is the creation of soil, without which we could not grow food (on our last night we viewed a challenging film called, “Dirt”). Another gift of trees is the food they provide, especially nut and fruit trees, but also because some types of trees are used as fodder for domesticated animals. Lastly, some fibrous trees provide material used for clothing. I was deeply touched by this simple but profound meditation on all the gifts we receive from trees. Sunderlal suggested that the “new farming” of the future should be tree farming, rather than grains.
The welfare of one is tied to the welfare of all. Soil. Water. Trees. Earthworms. Humans. Much of what I learned during my days at Bija Vidyapeeth, and on Navdanya’s farm, is an affirmation, once again, that I am at least on the right path toward claiming my own health and wholeness, while also renewing my relationship to Earth and its entire community of life, even as I am left to struggle with the paradoxes and consequences inherent in our modern lifestyle.
Kumar, S. (2006) You are therefore I am: A declaration of dependence. New Delhi, India: Viveka Foundation. [Opening quote, p. 50]
Bahuguna, S. (2009). The road to survival. Kozhikode, India: Mathrubhumi Books.